Describing himself as a proud second-generation Californian, Albert Okura was born in 1951 to Tsuyoshi and Chiyoko Okura, first-generation Japanese-Americans who experienced the consequences and effects of war first hand, when Chiyoko was placed in the Manzanar internment camp during WWII, while Tsuyoshi, a US soldier, was not. Even though this must have been a trying time for the Okura family, Albert Okura remembers little, if any, negative influence that this period may have had on him or his siblings. Okura’s parents were determined to make a life for them and their four children in America, and demonstrated their loyalty and allegiance for America wholeheartedly, sharing very little, to no mention, of any ill-treatment or injustices that they may have suffered during the war. “My parents, along with all my aunts and uncles, rarely talked about the war with us,” Okura shares. “I don’t recall either parent ever complaining about the government policies that sent them to camps, even though everyone knew that it was wrong. I do remember my mother being very proud that no Japanese-American was ever convicted as a spy for Japan.”
Growing up in California during the ‘50s, Okura, the second of four children, had a “typically American” childhood, full of baseball and basketball, and television shows like The Lone Ranger, Superman, and Leave It to Beaver. “It was a much simpler time,” recollects Okura. “There was no social media, no cell phones, no online gaming, no modern conveniences. I think it was a pretty good childhood. We played little league baseball and basketball and [watched] black and white TV with all the corny shows. And even though we did not have a lot of money, prices were very reasonable. Going to Disneyland was only $6. Visiting national parks such as Yosemite was free.”
But it was his parents’ attitude to overcoming adversity during the war and their positivity in embracing the American way of life that made the biggest impression on young Albert Okura. “[It] allowed me to grow up believing in the American dream, which to me means coming to America, working hard, making money, raising a family, and assimilating into a free society where all this becomes possible. Looking back, I had something inside me that shouted ‘entrepreneur’, but my parents did not understand me. My mother wanted me to go to school and become a dentist, but the only problem was that I wasn’t smart enough, and I didn’t like sitting still all day. Very few of the Japanese-Americans of my generation became entrepreneurs, so I had no role models for business from family members or relatives.”
For Okura however, it was fast food, which started out as a treat that he would walk a mile and a half for, that was to define his interests and life trajectory. “By the time I was 10-years- old, McDonald’s came to town and their bargain basement prices changed my life. I made $1 a day delivering newspapers, so McDonald’s was a godsend. I spent most of my money buying and eating hamburgers and fries.”
1969 rolled in, the Vietnam War was at its peak and Okura had just graduated high school. To avoid being drafted into the war, Okura did what most young people at that time did, he joined college. “I was 18 years old and very confused about my future,” he reflects. “I had no clue what I was going to do for a living. I didn’t even know if I would be drafted.” During this period, the anti-war movement was attracting people from college campuses and middle class suburbs. By 1969, this movement had become increasingly powerful, with Americans opposing government escalation and the U.S. role in Vietnam. “If it wasn’t for the war, I probably wouldn’t have enrolled in college.”
With no idea of what he wanted to major in, Okura registered for prerequisite courses that were a necessary requirement to graduate, and settled into college life. To earn needed money for gas and spending, while in college, he took himself to the job placement office and secured himself an interview with Burger King for a position that would pay $1.35 per hour. “Prior to the interview, I had never heard of Burger King and there were only 12 Burger Kings on the west coast at the time. Today, they are the second largest hamburger chain in the world. This was my first real job working for a corporation and I enjoyed the pace of the fast food environment.”
The draft law was due to expire at the end of June 1971,but President Nixon requested a two-year extension. However, by January 1973, the draft came to an end; Albert took his cue and dropped out of college. At the urging of his supervisor, Okura accepted a management position with Burger King and set his sights on a life in fast food. For the next eight years, Okura immersed himself, learning everything about Burger King and the fast food business, and in the process, climbed the corporate ladder. Nevertheless, the spark that was ignited inside of him years before, as a young boy with an appetite for the American dream, was still burning and even though he had committed himself to a full-time job, Okura’s ambition told him that he was destined for more.
“During my time at Burger King, I had no plans to make this my profession for life. Somehow I couldn’t picture myself at age 50 and telling friends that I worked for Burger King.” And so, Okura spent his free time in bookstores, devouring self-help books and autobiographies of successful businessmen such as Ray Kroc and Sam Walton, to mentally prepare himself, in foresight, for something big in his future “I didn’t have a clue what that was going to be. I discovered the secret to success is the right mental attitude - deciding what you want to do, coming up with a plan, and then taking immediate action if the right opportunity arises. Every successful person I read about followed that philosophy.”
When speaking, there’s one word Okura uses often: destiny. According to him, everything that he’s accomplished wasn’t planned, but rather fell into place through opportunity and hard work. “Destiny came calling in 1983,” he shares. “My Uncle, who owned a shopping center in Ontario, California, asked me if I wanted to take over a vacant restaurant and open a char-broiled Hispanic style restaurant. Although I was a die-hard burger and fries man, and seldom ate chicken, I jumped at the opportunity.” The ‘60s and ‘70s were a particularly favorable time for the major fast food chains to flourish. Notwithstanding, in 1984, Okura’s first Juan Pollo restaurant opened its doors.
“Best thing I ever did,” he says. “My friend, Armando Parra, helped me to get started and got me into rotisserie chicken, which is a much better finished product than char-broiled. The ‘80s was the perfect environment for smaller chains such as ours. The business economy was doing well, there was little over-regulation, taxes were low, cities wanted new businesses, employees were happy to be working. It was very easy to expand and open additional locations.”
With moderate success at his first location, it wasn’t until Juan Pollo’s second restaurant opened in 1986 in San Bernardino that the growing chain’s popularity spiked. “Since opening in 1984, I have personally cooked over 1,000,000 chickens. That’s why I’m The Chicken Man,” Okura shares. Today, Juan Pollo has over 25 outlets in Southern California, including in San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Riverside and Orange counties. But, lady destiny was not done with Okura yet.
The location of Juan Pollo’s second restaurant could not have been more auspicious. It was right on Route 66, America’s fabled main street. The iconic highway that has been celebrated in music, movies, television and literature was going to ignite a connection within Okura that, in retrospect, was all part of his journey with Route 66. “I grew up by the LA Harbour, so I never really traveled inland. I was always aware of the Route, but by the time I started driving, the Route was decommissioned and everyone drove the ‘freeways’. By the time I opened the San Bernardino location, Americans still did not embrace the Route.” The notoriety of Route 66 may have waned during this period, but this was not to last. The late ‘90s and the 2000s saw a resurgence in the popularity of the Route, especially with the baby boomer generation who took diligently to the old road. But also, with the release in 2006 of the hit Pixar movie Cars, Route 66 became a global phenomenon, introducing a whole new international fan base. It was destiny that Juan Pollo was on Route 66.
Chance took Okura further down Route 66 and back to his original love of burgers when he purchased the physical location of the original McDonald's restaurant, opened by Dick and Mac McDonald in 1948. On the market due to a foreclosure in 1998, Okura is clear that he bought the property, not due to its history or any sentimentality, but because it was a good investment opportunity. Making it the location of Juan Pollo’s head office, it wasn’t long before Okura began to move towards a second use for the property, a museum to honor an institution that had had a big impact on his life.
“I didn’t plan on buying this property, I didn’t plan on coming to Route 66, so I think it's my destiny to recognize opportunities and to jump.”
Filled with kitschy McDonald's memorabilia, the unofficial museum came to life after a local newspaper erroneously reported that Okura had plans to open one. The article resulted in a lot of interest from the community, and so he decided that the idea made sense, and with the help of other McDonald’s enthusiasts, collected thousands of pieces of fast food history, and the stories that came along with them.
“I’m different from a lot of museums, because I don’t just display things, I try to get the story behind the story,” he says. “I’m more interested in if they knew the brothers, remember the early days, or any special stories about what they’re bringing in.”
With many of the items brought in on loan from their owners, Okura’s homage to the Golden Arches opened in 2016, and has since shared a piece of American history with thousands of people visiting San Bernardino, many of them as they make their way down the Mother Road toward the picturesque waters of the Pacific Ocean and the end of the trail.
“The city of San Bernardino has been trying to embrace Route 66, but there has not been coordination between the city, businesses, and preservationists. Part of the problem may be the changing demographics, where most of the newer arrivals are not aware of Route 66 history. Personally, I am doing my part to promote the Route. My main store is on Route 66, so I have been creating a local Route 66 museum in a spare room, specializing in San Bernardino’s history and its role on the Route.”
But Okura’s history of preservation didn’t stop there. Take another cue from destiny and Okura’s journey ventures further down Route 66 and into a most unlikely destination, roughly 150 miles into the Mojave Desert.
A Shadow from the Past
Once a major stop on America’s most famous highway, Amboy is an unincorporated community in San Bernardino County, west of Needles and east of Ludlow, on Route 66. Part of the gold rush era in the late 1800s, Amboy was settled in 1858 and established in 1883, as the first stop in a series of railroad stations that crossed the Mojave Desert. In the mid-1920s, the tiny town experienced a huge boom with the opening of the Mother Road, which led to substantial growth within the community, including the now iconic Roy's Motel and Cafe, which opened in 1938.
“Amboy was really critical,” says Glen Duncan, President of the California Historical Route 66 Association. “It was a stopping point for most travelers. One of its unique features is that it had three very important services,” he continues, speaking about Roy’s. “It had space for a car park, so people could stop and picnic, it had cabins, which were just tents previously, and then a restaurant. So, there are just a lot of aspects of Route 66 travel that it embodies.”
During World War II, tourism declined across the US, but Amboy remained busy due to its isolated, yet vital location.
“Route 66 is widely known for its contribution to pop culture,” says Duncan. “But one unknown era of the road was during the war, when it was a lifeline for military vehicles. We had training across the core of the desert, and Route 66 was the only way to get there,” he explains of Amboy’s importance. “It was a major route for travel and an artery for the build-up of the aircraft industry here during the war.”
The town of Amboy has changed ownership numerous times throughout the years. From Roy and Velma Crowl who opened Roy’s Café and Motel in 1938 to Herman ‘Buster’ Burris, Roy’s son-in-law – he was married to Roy’s daughter Betty – whom Roy brought on in a move to expand the business. In 1959, Roy and Velma retired leaving Roy's in Buster's name. In 1995, Buster sold the town to investors Walt Wilson and Tim White who went on to lose it in a foreclosure, leading Bessie Burris, Buster’s widow, to repossess it, before finally selling it to Albert Okura in 2005. At its peak, Amboy was home to 65 people, including the Burris family. Today, Amboy’s population is a mere four, a community all but forgotten after the opening of Interstate 40 in 1973.
“Amboy came up for sale on the Internet on Good Friday, 2005 and I took my own advice by taking immediate action and closed the deal with Bessie Burris the next day. I knew the low sale price of $425,000 was great, but the real costs would come with maintaining and improving the town,” shares Okura, explaining how he came to own Amboy. “A school bus, a Virgin Mary statue, and all of this valuable stuff were taken. The Burris’ were just heartbroken that the town had been stripped and things removed.” Acknowledging the pain of the family that helped make Amboy what it was, Okura made a promise to never let the town disappear. This promise led the Burris family to reject larger offers for what Okura had on the table, a significant sacrifice in order to make sure that the history behind Amboy did not become another memory lost in the desert sun.
Back to the Future and On with Success
Now a highly successful entrepreneur with 27 Juan Pollo locations and a town to his name, Okura looks at opportunities like the McDonald’s Museum and Amboy as promotional investments and not money making schemes.
“When I bought Amboy, I wasn’t in the market to buy property, but when the opportunity to buy a town presented itself, I couldn't resist.” Viewing the town through rose-tinted glasses, Okura only sees possibilities and a dream of the past that he hopes to preserve. “I’m trying to keep Amboy pure. Really, at this point, it’s a living ghost town. If you go there it’s stuck in the ‘60s.” This feeling is what he plans to maintain as he works to breathe life back into the town.
“Looking at all the little buildings on the way to Amboy, you can tell that [Route 66] had life at one point,” says Charlie Aceves, who acts as the town's manager. “Then you come to Amboy and it’s a living ghost town. I enjoy its retro style. I’m into classic cars, so I can picture the whole town up and running.”
This vision of a busy past keeps Amboy enthusiasts going, despite the challenges of bringing an abandoned town to life with today’s safety standards.
“Albert [Okura] is very personable and intelligent,” shares Hugh Brown, Executive Director of the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association. “He [has] great plans for the restoration of Amboy, but has run into problems with San Bernardino County Building and Safety. Their biggest issue is water. The water in Amboy is high in toxins and not drinkable, so it has to be trucked in, plus the general infrastructure, electrical, and septic system, have to be brought up to current county standards.”
“I think he’s got a lot of guts,” adds Duncan. “To do that, even after discovering that there was no [potable] water. That’s one of the main problems stopping Amboy from becoming a desert hot spot.”
But according to Okura, plans are already in the works to address water and septic issues, and once fixed, he hopes to re-open Roy’s Cafe within the next two years.
“Eventually, the plan is to serve traditional diner food such as breakfast, burgers and fries. There are no plans to sell rotisserie chicken, my goal with Roy’s Cafe is to have the only authentic gas station/café combination in legal operation along Route 66.”
Once that is done, Okura says he will turn his attention to the rest of Amboy, which includes the motel, cabins, a post office, Catholic Church, auto shop, airstrip, cemetery, and school. However, at this point, Albert Okura says that staying open is costing him more (roughly $50,000 a year) than it’s bringing in, but he considers it a worthwhile cause: preserving the past and providing basic services to those traveling the Mojave Desert. “Europeans and Asians have always viewed the Route as true ‘Americana’. With the rise of globalism, tourists from all over the world have been traveling to America. Many want to travel the Route and experience how it was in the ‘50s.” Amboy is also the jump off point to visit the nearby Amboy Crater, an extinct volcano and National Landmark. Towns like Amboy and places like Roy’s contribute significantly to the international popularity of Route 66.
“I tend to view myself as a modern day Route 66 entrepreneur. The things I am doing on the Route ultimately will promote my restaurant chain. This is what all the original businesses on the Route were doing: creating wacky or memorable attractions designed to get travelers’ attention and get them to stop. My goal in Amboy is to always keep the atmosphere as a “living ghost town” and not become a tourist attraction interested in profit only.
I believe that I might be the only one willing to buy the town and not worry about making a profit. I can control the destiny of a historic town. The biggest challenge now is that so many people are visiting, that it is overloading our septic systems. The local travelers are using us as a rest stop with public facilities. I guess the answer is to spend more money.
Amboy is unique in that it is located remotely in the desert surrounded by a national preserve, so there will never be future development anywhere nearby. When you view things in terms of a “living ghost town” and making profit is secondary, time is on our side, and I don’t have to rush to get things open. I can control the destiny of a famous landmark and have the opportunity to keep Amboy from becoming a tourist trap. How many people can control the destiny of a famous town? I guess I am the official caretaker of Amboy.”
Next time that you are motoring down the Mother Road and decide to pass through the Mojave, take a moment to ponder all of the stories that have taken place in the vast expanse, and all of the dreamers who came before you and invested their lives. Life in the desert is not always easy, but there is something intrinsically romantic about the sacrifices made and the men and women who made them.